Crossing Boundaries: Insights for Ethics of Extractive Knowledge from Post-Colonial Contexts

Carter Vance
12 min readMar 10, 2017

One of the key insights that post-colonial theory has brought to the world of research, and academia more broadly, is the historically fictional, and perhaps impossible, notion of research as “neutral” or “objective”. Though articulations about the deeply ideological nature of certain seemingly “neutral” practices or observations within research do have antecedents in, for instance, Marx’s critique of classical political economy as a product of bourgeois ideology or the work of early Western feminists in dismantling “biological” explanations of female inferiority, post-colonial critiques in relation to research add at least two important conceptual devices which researchers must grapple with.

Firstly, that “colonization almost invariably implies a relation of structural domination” (Mohanty 61), meaning that structural character of knowledge production within such a relationship will tend towards the same domination, even if presented as being outside of it. To choose an easy example, a relationship of colonial domination “opens up” subjects to researchers coming from the dominant social group via the implicit backing of force by the colonial state which otherwise would not have been available to them. This is true even if the researcher themselves has no direct relationship with that state and may be notionally opposed to its policies of force, but nevertheless is likely in a position of benefitting from both its protection (which is not afforded or afforded in a much truncated/contradictory fashion to the colonized subject) and funding (as researchers are usually associated with institutions receiving state funds). At a deeper level, colonization structures a relationship of domination within the discourse of knowledge itself: which historical accounts are designated as the “right” ones, which ways of knowing are considered “valid” for scientific purposes, as so on. Discourses of history are particular important in this respect as sociopolitical struggles for Indigenous rights, “have usually involved contested accounts of the past by colonizers and colonized” (Smith 33), which, in some sense, is also a contest for the validity of particular research methodologies[1]. All of this marks research as having a political character within colonial and post-colonial contexts, even, and perhaps especially, where it professes to have no such agenda.

Carter Vance

Graduate of Carleton University's Institute of Political Economy. Podcast: Patreon: